Landmarks & Legacies: Centennial Olympic Park Magnolia Tribute Garden

Landmarks & Legacies is an occasional unConventional blog series exploring the various identifying and distinctive physical features of the GWCCA campus.

What do you give philanthropists as a thank you gift?

For the people and organizations that donated $27 million to a capital renovation plan to reimagine Centennial Olympic Park, logoed tchotchkes didn’t seem appropriate.

Solution: the Ring of Magnolias or as its officially known, Centennial Olympic Park Magnolia Tribute Garden, an everyday thank you to the benefactors that made renovating the Park a reality.

One of the newest features at the Park, this tribute garden is comprised of 29 magnolia trees of seven different varieties placed along a 700-foot paved path that snakes its way around the perimeter of the newly-renovated Southern Company Amphitheater.

At the beginning of the trail is a new granite marker with a map denoting which tree is dedicated to whom/what, and in front of each tree customized placards list the donor, the type of magnolia and its corresponding scientific name. For example, No. 27 on the trail dedicated to the GWCCA’s Board of Governors is a Yellow Lantern, aka Magnolia virginiana var. australis.

Photo by Ashley Gilmer, GWCCA Multimedia Specialist.

Why magnolias?

“They will get larger but they won’t become shade trees,” explained GWCCA Campus Horticulturalist Steve Ware. “These can handle full sun, they’ll thrive.”

Plus, magnolias and their blooms are rife with symbolism.

“The (magnolia) flower is associated with nobility, perseverance, dignity and a love of nature. Magnolias are often used in floral arrangements such as wedding bouquets to represent the purity and dignity of the bride. They are popular in Southern-style weddings because the flower is often identified with the South,” according to

The most common, iconic magnolia is the Magnolia grandiflora, said Ware, and that variety is well-represented among the Park’s tribute garden. But the collection also includes Magnolia soulangeana x lilifora (Saucer Magnolia), Magnolia stellate (Umbrella Tree), Magnolia virginiana (Keltyk Sweetbay Magnolia) and the aforementioned Magnolia virginiana var. australis (Yellow Lantern).

Winding along the concrete path, you’ll encounter a combination of evergreens that maintain their leaves year-round and deciduous magnolias that look bare right now, but will blossom in spring.

The diversity of magnolias symbolizes the diversity of donors that contributed to the Park renovations, said Jennifer LeMaster, GWCCA’s Chief Administrative Officer.

The tribute garden is partially inspired by Magnolia Lane, the famed entryway at Augusta National National Golf Club where the Masters Tournament is played, and where Centennial Olympic Park mastermind Billy Payne served as chairman. (A magnolia honoring Payne and his wife is No. 19 on the trail).

When ideas were being kicked around for ways to honor the Park donors, someone on the planning committee suggested something like Magnolia Lane. Following that meeting, LeMaster reached out to Ware to find out if magnolias were a viable option for the Park. Oddly enough, there were only two magnolias in the Park, near the playgrounds, but Ware affirmed that the trees could indeed flourish and survive the prolonged summer heat.

LeMaster then contacted the original landscape architect for the Park, DTJ Design, and Todd Hill, director of the firm’s Atlanta office, began designing what would become the Centennial Olympic Park Magnolia Tribute Garden.

After the May 13 “Legacy of Dreams” event to celebrate the completion of the Park’s $27 million makeover, Ware and crew transformed the vision for the tribute garden into reality.

The work was recently completed, but the tribute garden will truly come to life as the weather gets warmer, the leaves sprout, the flowers bloom, and the trees begin to mature.

“I think in a couple of growing seasons it will really grow in and people will notice it more,” said Ware.

LeMaster said although she’s been a part of many once-in-a-lifetime projects on the GWCCA campus, the Ring of Magnolias was an emotional labor of love.

“It does feel like buildings change and come and go, but investments in the natural world last forever,” she said. “The Park is the most sustainable work you’ll ever do in your career, and to know that I’ve had a fingerprint on the Park, I’m very proud of that.”